ROME—Anyone who has witnessed a protest on the streets of European cities in the last 30 years or so will recognize something very familiar about what is happening in the United States. Peaceful legitimate demonstrations, much like those in American cities protesting the death of George Floyd in police custody, suddenly turn violent as if a match was lit. Within minutes, total chaos ensues as cars are set on fire and store windows are broken.
One difference between what’s happening in the U.S. and what’s gone on in Europe is that private gun ownership in Europe is essentially non-existent, which makes the violence less deadly, but we have seen terrifying beatings and destruction nonetheless.
In Europe, these violent factions are called Black Blocs, and are highly organized militant groups that do not share an ideology so much as a methodology. They infiltrate organized protests and instigate attacks on police and property, and then often step back so the police respond to the peaceful demonstrators caught in the crossfire.
They often place cars along the protest route where they can keep their arsenal of paving stones, Molotov cocktails and other weapons close at hand without having to be obvious as they approach. In Europe, they wear black balaclavas when they strike and then quickly remove the masks to blend in or escape. They have great success creating situations where those who have gone to marches with peaceful intent get caught up in the mayhem and are left injured or arrested as the Black Blocs escape and watch their dirty work unfold.
The term was first used in Germany in the 1980s, where peaceful demonstrations against police brutality were hijacked by those who just wanted to kill some cops. In Europe the term is used to describe the militant groups who infiltrate where in the U.S. black bloc is more often used to describe a tactic or an event overtaken by violence.
A 2015 article in Police Magazine after violence erupted in protests marking the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, referred to black bloc activity within those protests as “chaos- and havoc-laden tactics” involving people dressed in similar black clothing “in an effort to appear as a unified assemblage, giving the appearance of solidarity for the particular cause at hand.”
Dr. Tsilla Hershco of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Paris has done extensive research on the black bloc phenomenon across Europe. “They piggyback on the demonstrations to commit severe acts of violence,” she says. “They oppose the political establishment, the police, and the capitalist and global economy, operate in relatively small groups, and are connected through their own social networks.”
Cities across Europe have been nearly destroyed at their hands. In Paris, the Yellow Vest (gilets jaunes) protests over fuel prices in 2018 and 2019 quickly fell victim to these militant groups who burned cafés and banks, defaced monuments and torched news stands for no reason relevant to the original demonstrators.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Occupy Movement and protests outside any summit of global leaders have been infiltrated as far-right and far-left groups with very different causes found common ground in the urban battlefield. Police vans have burned in the cobbled streets of Rome, and London has been paralyzed by their violence.
In July 2001, a 23-year-old protester named Carlo Giuliani was shot by an Italian carabinieri officer in downtown Genoa during the G7 summit, which was completely overshadowed by both far right and far left Black Bloc contingents. Photos show a masked Giuliani throwing a fire extinguisher at an armored police Land Rover with an officer shooting into the air as a scare tactic. But the bullet hit a rock thrown by another protester and richoted and killed Giuliani. He was then run over by the Land Rover trying to escape the attacking crowd. The officer was acquitted and his actions were deemed self defense.
Black Bloc thugs on the far right and far left in Europe are inherently manipulative. Unlike terrorists who like to leave their calling card, Black Bloc militants on both fringes often set up extremely complicated strategies to blame each other for their actions, even invoking ideology they don’t believe in to make it seem like the other group is behind the violent infiltration. They use secret social media accounts and communicate clandestinely, often exploiting people in compromised socio-economic groups.
In the U.S. this week, the familiar tactic was used when several tweets calling for violent infiltration of the George Floyd protests were attributed to antifa. The self-described “anti-fascist” left-wing militant group gained notoriety in street battles with white supremacists at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump has just deemed it a domestic terrorist organization. The Twitter account with the handle @ANTIFA_US tweeted ahead of Monday protests: “Tonight’s the night, Comrades, Tonight we say ‘F--- The City’ and we move into the residential areas... the white hoods.... and we take what's ours …”
But a Twitter spokesperson on Monday confirmed that the account calling for violence in antifa’s name was actually created by a known white supremacist group trying to cast blame on antifa. Twitter took it down. “This account violated our platform manipulation and spam policy, specifically the creation of fake accounts,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement Monday. “We took action after the account sent a Tweet inciting violence and broke the Twitter Rules.”
It is too soon to tell exactly who is behind the shocking violence sweeping through the U.S. protests, but if lessons learned in Europe are any clue, it is likely the result of several groups feeding off each other with the worst intentions, and it may not be brought entirely under control any time soon.